Transitioning From Friend to Stepdad
Douglas Pittman of Brentwood, Tenn., has few regrets about the way he handled his role as a stepfather when he married his wife, Creel, nine years ago. He is glad the two, who each brought two children to the blended family, sought counseling before tying the knot.
"The one thing I would have done differently (is that) I probably would have spent more time talking directly to her children about my role in the family, making sure they knew I was not trying to be their father and neither was my wife trying to be the mother," he says. "We were there basically to be supportive." His two daughters are now ages 25 and 37. His wife's children, a 20-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter, are also grown.
When it came to disciplining his stepchildren, Pittman encouraged his wife to discipline her children who lived with them. "The only time I would intervene was if there was any kind of immediate danger to the children or property," he says. He also kept a hands-off approach to discipline when the couple dated for four years, making sure the children knew he would not eventually take their biological father's role as a disciplinarian.
Pittman, who still participates in a blended family educational group, has observed that most tension in blended families arises when the stepfather comes on too strong. Some children, however, welcome a father figure. "We have a few in our group that are the exception especially when the children are young," he says. "We find when children do not have a close relationship with their other parent who is no longer living there and someone comes in and does things with the children and supports them, sometimes they want that parent and they bond."
Most of the groundwork for a strong blended family begins when the couple dates and gradually includes the children in their social activities. "I think it helped considerably that we dated a long time," Pittman says. "I think fathers need to understand children will often look at the person their parent is dating one way before they marry them. They will look at them differently after they are married. Before they looked at them more as a friend to the spouse. Then, when you marry, they start becoming apprehensive about whether or not you are going to take on roles of the biological parent who is not there."
Ron Deal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Smart Step-Family (Bethany House Publishers, 2002), recommends couples date for two years before getting married when children are involved. He says stepfathers need to earn the right to lead their stepchildren by bonding over time.
"One of the biggest mistakes stepfathers can make is when they come in (with) an attitude that says, 'I'm the stepfather now and you have to do what I say,'" says Deal, who is also the director of Successful Stepfamilies in Jonesboro, Ark. "Relationship, trust and respect are the things that give you the right to then have authority."
Deal, who is married to Nan and has three children ages 5, 8 and 10, says the best role for a stepparent can be compared to the role of a coach, teacher or babysitter. "It takes on a mentality that says I am an enforcer of the biological mom's rules and the household rules we have agreed to," he says. "I have power because the biological mom has given me power, just like a babysitter has power. Parents say to the children, 'While we are gone, she is in charge.' Babysitters can enforce rules with children and they can get things done while the parents are gone, but they also know there are certain things they can't do. They can't make big decisions. They may not do corporal punishment. They may just say, 'When your mom gets home I'm going to tell her about that and she is going to have to deal with that.'"
Once the couple has been married for a few years, the stepfather will become increasingly more involved, though stepfathers should expect some resistance to his increased authority.
Children may have a different attitude toward the stepfather after the wedding, says Deal. "During the dating process future stepfathers generally are hands off in their approach to those kids," he says. "They date their mother, they spend time with the kids, they make sure they are doing fun activities because that's rewarding for everyone. But once the wedding takes place and everyone moves in together, there are some shifts that occur. They go from a hands-off approach to a hands-on approach, which is very different for the children. Children experience the hands-off approach before the wedding as being fun and enjoyable – (a) 'he's not in my face' kind of a thing."
Finally, Deal suggests stepfathers relax in the role as stepfather and make it work. It may not ever grow to the place where the stepfather feels as though he is as close to the children as the biological father and has that much authority in their lives, he says. In fact, Deal says, stepfathers have not failed if they never get to that level of attachment.